By the time they ambled slowly back to the tree-lined path, the sky had grown dark, the half-full moon beaming through a gap in the clouds to faintly illuminate the surrounding fields. The herb-scented wind was turning colder by the minute, a chilling breeze that promised a swift and bitter change to the mild winter weather. Yet for all Antonio cared, the sky could have been raining fire. Mere hours earlier, he'd been prepared for death. Now, his head was giddy with joy, and he had to keep looking down at his arm around Lovino's waist to make sure this was real. Lovino limped heavily on his ankle as they walked, his body warm where it pressed sideways against Antonio, his hands fidgeting awkwardly like he did not know what to do with them. He always did look so beautiful in the moonlight.
"And that one there..." Antonio pointed up at the infinite, star-clustered sky, "…is called the wheelbarrow!"
"The wheelbarrow?" Lovino repeated flatly, his expression a complicated mixture of mirth, derision, and outright pity.
"Yes!" said Antonio, blithely ignoring Lovino's tone. Right now, he was more than happy to be subjected to Lovino's scorn. After those paralysing moments hiding from a German patrol, Antonio was more than happy with any reaction from Lovino that wasn't utter terror or misguided embarrassment. This was Antonio's real duty, after all – his happy, real, important duty - to distract his little Italian from his own darkness. Whether that meant dancing in an empty cantina, or giving him riddles shaped like tomatoes, or, currently, pretending to be an astronomer. "The outer moons form the handles there, and there, and that asteroid belt looks like a bit of grass stuck in the wheel, do you see?"
"No." Lovino did not even bother looking. The sky was just light enough to show the gold in his eyes, and the suppressed laughter behind them. "There is no constellation called the wheelbarrow. You made it up. You're making all this up."
Antonio managed an exaggerated, affronted huff. "I am not!"
Lovino raised a sceptical eyebrow. "The Big Tomato?"
"Hey?" Antonio actually thought that one was fairly believable. "The Big Tomato is a very ancient, very important constellation!"
"To… uh…" Antonio thought quickly. "…the druids."
"The druids?" Lovino nearly scoffed outright. "Despite the fact that tomatoes originated in Mexico, and were not grown in Britain until the late sixteenth century?"
Antonio determinedly pressed on. "Yes. The Big Tomato was a very important constellation to the Mexican druids."
Lovino's breath spun warm in the cold evening air, catching in a hitch before it could turn to laughter. He quickly looked away, impatiently brushing a stray lock of hair. "Your understanding of history is as exhaustive as your knowledge of constellations."
"Thank you, Lovino!" said Antonio brightly, ignoring Lovino's familiar nerves and barely veiled sarcasm. He just pointed again up at a bright cluster of stars. "That one, there, is Orion's Collar."
Antonio had no idea where he was pointing, and was quite aware that Lovino knew it too. "And there's the Big Bear..."
"Ursa Major," Lovino sighed, but with the tiniest tug at the corner of his lip. "And it's over there."
"And oh, there's my favourite." Antonio pointed directly at the brightest star in the sky, shining brilliantly through a gap in the grey, misty clouds. He knew this one. "Venus. I like Venus."
"Venere," Lovino corrected into Italian, "is not a constellation."
"No. He is a star," said Antonio proudly.
Lovino touched a pained hand to his forehead. "Wrong. Again. She is a planet."
Antonio broke into a delighted grin. There was no way he was going to win this one - but that didn't matter. What mattered was that Lovino was not scared, or embarrassed, or lost in his own dark thoughts. True he was probably thinking Antonio was a bit simple, but Antonio was rather used to people thinking that of him. "All right, Lovino, I give up. I can not help that I am not as clever as you."
Lovino pulled back, lowered his head, and muttered, almost inaudibly, "I didn't say that, idiot."
Oh, no. That would not do. Antonio laughed as lightly as he could manage, while his chest ached at how easily Lovino could take offence and draw into himself. "Now, just one more thing about Venere…" Antonio took Lovino's hand and lifted it with his own to point up at the sparkling planet. The touch shivered across his skin, and he pretended not to notice Lovino's sharp breath. "Did you know, that she is named for the Roman Goddess of love?"
Slowly, cautiously, Lovino raised his eyes to meet Antonio's. Antonio could almost see the thoughts running behind them, glistening gold in the darkness. He was so close; his hair smelt of lavender. Antonio's heart stuttered a little, until Lovino finally shrugged a shoulder in an obvious attempt at indifference. "No. I didn't know that."
At that, Antonio's heart nearly burst in his chest. Of course Lovino knew that. Everyone knew that, let alone someone as smart as Lovino. Antonio almost felt lightheaded that Lovino would pretend otherwise for the sake of sparing his feelings. It was fascinating how deep Lovino's thoughts went; how strong his emotions, how gold his eyes… Before he even realised what he was doing, Antonio brought Lovino's hand to his lips and kissed it. Immediately, Lovino's eyes went wide, his lips parted, his breath quickened…
Antonio lowered Lovino's hand and looked forward. "One day, Lovino." He tightened his arm around Lovino's waist as they continued walking at their slow, ambling pace. "One day, we'll go up there. Just ordinary people, like you and me. We'll go to the moon, and to Venere, and maybe even to the Big Tomato. We'll go up there and touch the stars."
"You're mad." Lovino sounded a little breathless, his feet slightly unsteady on the path.
"But just imagine it, Lovino!" Antonio easily steadied Lovino, smoothly overlooking his sudden issues with coordination. "Imagine if mankind reached for the stars instead of trying so desperately to annihilate each other."
Lovino remained silent, and Antonio let himself wonder. If mankind reached for the stars… Well, then there would be no time for absurd things like tanks and torture, assassinations and espionage; maybe by then, mankind would realise what a truly senseless thing it was to extinguish life by the millions.
By now, Antonio barely even noticed where they were going. When they turned a bend in the road, Lovino halted abruptly. "Stop."
Antonio did so, his body tensing with alarm. "What is it?"
Lovino did not answer. He simply stared straight ahead. Antonio followed his gaze to the soft, glowing lights of the Vargas farmhouse up ahead. Lovino pressed the faintest touch closer, and Antonio did not dare ask again. Because Antonio could read the emotions in Lovino's face. The uncertainty; the emptiness. Lovino did not want to go home.
Until now, Antonio hadn't realised how deeply silent the countryside was in the starlit evening. No distant engines, or echoing bomb blasts. None of those unwelcome reminders that war still raged around them. With nothing but the gusting wind and Lovino's quiet, gentle breaths, this might be any peaceful, easy evening on a cool Italian winter's night. But the moment Lovino's warm weight shifted, his shoulders slumped and his arms clutched to his chest, Antonio knew that though this night seemed peaceful, it was anything but easy. He searched for something, anything, to soften this sudden sadness.
"Have you solved the mystery of your tomato yet?"
The words came unbidden, but they seemed to work. Lovino startled immediately. He blinked wildly, looking momentarily thrown, then confused, then rather annoyed. All traces of sadness diminished and he just spat, "That stupid thing. I've barely thought of it."
Antonio brightened instantly. Lovino's vehement denial was simply proof to the contrary. "That's a real shame," Antonio said, casually. "Because, you see..." He leant closer, until his lips touched Lovino's hair and his stomach turned in fiery circles. "…it's a top secret message," he finished in a whisper.
Lovino's eyes widened, darkened, before growing suspicious and rolling upward. "So you're a code writer, now?" he asked sarcastically.
Antonio puffed out his chest and gave an arrogant nod. "One of the best. The British army wanted me, you know, but I've never been good with pigeons. And, of course, my heart always lay with astronomy."
That was almost too much. Lovino almost laughed. He broke into a coughing fit to hide it. Antonio continued eagerly, while he had the advantage: "You must decipher the tomato code, read the secret message, then relate the words immediately back to me, understand?"
"Tomato code?" Lovino broke off coughing to groan in disbelief. He pushed Antonio's shoulder with surprising force and awkwardly limped away. "You don't have to make fun of me."
"No, no, Lovino, I would never!" Antonio hurried to follow, giggling madly and trying in vain to keep his arm around Lovino's waist. After all, he didn't want Lovino to fall, and the need to see him smile was like a physical ache. "It is very important, once you have the secret tomato words you must…"
"Secret tomato words?!" Lovino's tone grew increasingly exasperated, his hands clenched in fists, though he was unable to control his smile as he limped furiously towards the house.
"Wait!" cried Antonio, rather surprised at Lovino's speed, and rather elated by his smile. "Wait, Lovino, your ankle!"
Lovino drew a breath like a warning and batted Antonio's hand away, but a gasp of laughter finally burst from his lips. "I'm fine!"
Antonio's chest flipped. Lovino's laughter was still the most wonderful sound he had ever heard. He had to hear more of it… "Don't be silly, you are injured, lean into me…"
Lovino's eyes flashed wildly. "You perverted…"
Antonio placed a hand on his back… "Hush, that's the pain speaking…"
"I don't need your help!" Lovino promptly stumbled on the steps leading to the door.
Antonio gleefully hurried to steady him. "Here, let me carry you inside…"
"WHAT?!" By this stage Lovino was shaking with helpless laughter, his arms tangled with Antonio's in another half-hearted, ineffectual attempt to push him away. Lovino's eyes were bright with mirth, the clear, genuine joy in his face sending Antonio's heart into a frenzy. "Get off, you're crazy, I…"
The front door swung open. Antonio froze, Lovino almost choked, and both their voices died in their throats. Roma stood in the doorway. His expression was unreadable, but for the strong, piercing disapproval in his eyes.
Well, perfect. Antonio suppressed his regret, took a careful, difficult step away from Lovino, and plastered a grin onto his face. "Evening, Roma!"
Not taking his eyes from Antonio, Roma replied with, "Go inside, Lovino."
Antonio's muscles tensed. Lovino hesitated, clenched his fists, opened his mouth as though to speak… then stepped through the door with a resigned sigh. Antonio fought his own sense of disappointment. After all, what else could Lovino do? What could Antonio do? This was Roma's house. Antonio watched as Lovino limped a few steps inside before turning to listen, his eyes wary and his hands fidgeting and his hair glinting in the light of the blazing fireplace…
Antonio reluctantly tore his eyes away, cleared his throat, and bounced on his heels. "Well, then. I guess I'll be…"
Roma interrupted harshly. "There has been an incident. An execution in the town square."
Antonio's gut clenched, his smile fell, and his mind shot into focus. An execution. The words flicked a switch inside him, and the last of his good humour faded away. An execution meant an interrogation. An interrogation meant a possible transfer of information. Information transfer meant… Antonio felt his nails dig into his palms. "Who?"
Roma answered vaguely, obviously attempting caution in front of Lovino. "The operation this morning did not go according to plan."
Lovino spoke one word; quick, sharp, panicked… "Feliciano…"
"Feli is all right," Roma reassured with a brief lift of his hand. "Just exhausted. He is already asleep."
Antonio thought quickly. He would have to act fast on this. If Feliciano had witnessed the incident, he could tell Antonio the number of soldiers involved; the method of killing; the reaction of the villagers… "Did Feliciano see the execution?"
Roma's shift in position answered the question. He stood taller, arms folded, shoulders tensed like the muscles were bunching under the skin. When he spoke, it was dangerously controlled. "You will not question him, Antonio."
Antonio's face hardened at the steady answer, his skin prickling unpleasantly. He subtly moved to mirror Roma's stance, and struggled to keep his frustration from seeping into his voice. "It is my job to ask these questions, Roma."
"It is not your job to torment my grandson." Roma leant forward threateningly, blocking the doorway, and lowered his voice to a hostile growl. "He is distressed enough from the experience. You will not make him relive it."
For a long moment, Antonio glared at Roma, letting that intense, severe expression glare back just as sharply. Roma was a man of courage, a leader of men, but he did not understand the stakes here. He no longer had the luxury of treating his grandsons as children. That execution could have been any of them. And as Antonio stared unblinking into those hard, dark eyes, he could not suppress the small, dark voice that whispered in his head: Lovino is no longer yours to protect. He is mine.
But keenly aware of Lovino watching, and careful not to let real anger set in, Antonio finally gave a terse nod. "All right. There are other ways I can find out."
"I am counting on it. We'll speak tomorrow, Antonio."
Counting on it. Of course he was. Counting on Antonio to do the dirty work; counting on Antonio to accept Roma's order and do his bidding. Antonio kept his head high as he turned away. He did not do this for Roma. He did this for freedom, he did this for Italy, he did this for what was right…
Liar. You do this for Lovino.
Antonio did not look back as he left.
The thud of the closing door was like a blow to Lovino's chest, quickly fading into a heavy, engulfing loneliness that was almost comforting in its familiarity. The exchange between Grandpa Roma and Antonio had lasted mere moments, but it left Lovino empty and angry, plainly aware that more had just occurred than it seemed. He doubted, however, he would be told anything further. He never was, after all.
The lamps were low, most of the room's light coming from the roaring fire. Cold wind battered against the windows, promising wilder weather to come. Lovino felt battered himself by this draining day. He was so tired of everything feeling so difficult. So tired of being scared; so tired of having something so wonderful, so right, so perfect, only to watch it walk away.
Grandpa Roma headed for the table, where a bottle of wine sat beside a messy stack of papers. It was nearly empty. Roma poured another glass and sat heavily. "That was a long walk home."
Lovino shrugged sullenly and changed the subject. "You honestly believe Antonio would torment Feli by asking him a few questions?"
Roma took a long gulp of wine. Lovino knew by now that Roma drank on two occasions: when he was very happy, and when he was nearing despair. Right now, he looked anything but happy. "You know how upset Feli gets."
Lovino scoffed. "Come on, Grandpa. Feli gets upset when one of the houseplants die."
Roma eyed him sharply. "You are too dismissive of your brother's emotions. At least he has the courage to show them." Lovino's cheeks turned cold, his jaw dropping before he could control it. Roma raised a tired hand and lowered his head apologetically. "I'm sorry, Lovino. I did not mean it like that."
Lovino hardened his eyes and his jaw. "There's no need to apologise, Grandpa, I'm quite aware you care for Feli more than me." It was a childish thing to say, but Lovino still felt brief satisfaction in spitting the words before marching towards the hall. He'd forgotten his swollen ankle, however, and promptly stumbled, only just managing to catch hold of a chair to stop himself falling. He clenched his hands and bit his cheek, furious.
It just made him angrier when Roma asked, softly, "Are you all right?"
No. I'm not all right. I'm only all right when Antonio smiles at me and I only realised that because I just came so close to losing it… "I'm fine. Nice of you to ask, finally."
Roma shook his head wearily and took a long sip of wine. "Lovino, your brother witnessed two men put to death today. Two men who fought, and died, for Italy."
Lovino felt a harsh stab of guilt. Then he realised Roma had not even denied his childish accusation, and he bristled once again. "Antonio also fights for Italy."
Roma's fixed stare was too perceptive. "You don't know Antonio."
Lovino narrowed his eyes, guilt turning back to anger. "What the hell is that supposed to mean?"
"There is more to him than what you see. He's not…" Roma broke off, vaguely waving his wine glass as though searching for the right word. "…safe," he finished uncertainly.
"Safe?" Lovino snorted. "What the hell is these days? You thought him safe enough to help me home, since you didn't think I could do it alone. You thought him safe enough to leave with me when a German patrol passed by…"
Lovino immediately regretted the words. Roma froze, eyes widening in alarm before he placed his glass on the table and leant forward anxiously. "A patrol? Why did Antonio not tell me of this?"
Lovino had to stop himself from screaming in frustration. "I'm telling you!"
Roma looked horrified. Lovino suddenly remembered his pistol, and prayed Roma would not notice it missing. "Don't you see, this is what I mean - my God, Lovino, if they had found you with him..."
"Well, they didn't," Lovino shouted. "They didn't because we hid off the road, Antonio made sure that nothing happened to me, he's not unsafe, he would die before he let anything happen to me!"
"Or," Lovino quickly fumbled to add, his gut twisting at the verbal slip, "or to any of us."
Roma let out a heavy breath and fixed Lovino with a piercing stare. "Do you love him?"
The question came from nowhere, and it hit Lovino like a bullet. The room swayed dangerously around him. All rage drained from his body, drained like the blood from his face, leaving him frozen white and utterly defenceless. For a moment he refused to accept what he'd heard. When he did, the urge to run fired through his nerves, but he simply could not make his legs move.
The silence lasted too long, Lovino's bones turned to ice; until, with all his strength, he forced himself to speak. "That's ridiculous." But the words sounded weak and far away.
"No." Roma looked almost guilty, and he looked unsure, but at the same time, he looked calmer than Lovino had seen him in a long time. "It's not. I may not completely understand, Lovino, but I know desire when I see it. Antonio is infatuated with you." Roma did not sound accusing, or angry. If anything, he sounded worried. "And I am not asking this to judge you. I ask because… you don't understand. Antonio is a wanted man, and if certain people find out that he cares for you…" Roma abruptly broke off, as though saying too much. He leant his elbows on the table, leaning forward and running weary hands through his hair. Then he simply repeated, "Do you love him, Lovino?"
He knows. Lovino's heart pounded, burning against his ribs, though his blood felt frozen. Be brave. His hands shook and hot sweat rose to his forehead. Yes, his brain screamed insistently. Yes. He is everything.
Lovino steeled himself and answered. "No." But he was unable to stop himself bowing his head, ashamed, distraught, furious. He could not look at Roma as he replied, somewhat doubtfully.
"All right. We will talk in the morning. There is some dinner in the kitchen for you."
"I'm not hungry."
Lovino grabbed a lantern from a side table and limped determinedly from the room. As he headed down the dark hallway, everything seemed to close in on him. The deep, intense clarity he'd felt in that ditch as the patrol passed by; the tingling happiness of having Antonio's arm around him; the bright hilarity at Antonio's ridiculous attempts at stargazing. And he had denied it all with one weak, gutless lie.
Lovino's breath came heavy, frantic in his chest, like a storm was raging inside him and he had no way to let it out. Why was he always such a coward?
This was too much. Too much for one day. Everything crowded in his head, fought beneath his skin, too many emotions in too few hours, too much to feel and accept, too much to understand...
He slammed open the bedroom door, and his thoughts flew to one place. Without pausing to think, Lovino limped towards the dresser, snatched the stupid glass tomato, clutched it for the briefest second… it's a top secret message… then smashed it to the ground.
A gut wrenching regret, a soft rustle, then… "Lovino, what are you doing?"
Lovino ignored his brother. He fell to his knees, put down the lantern, and picked frantically through the glass shards. A sharp pain sliced his finger but he ignored it - there, what was that? Small, silver, smooth – Lovino grabbed the ring with shaking fingers and held it up to the light. Two words were inscribed inside the band.
And then everything stopped. The silence was like cotton in Lovino's ears, and he could not hold back a bitter laugh. "Bastard." But he was not sure if he meant Roma, or Antonio, or himself.
Lovino barely noticed as Feliciano stood from the bed, his voice sleepy and concerned. "What is it?"
"Nothing. It's nothing." Lovino dropped his head into his hands. The storm had passed, and he had broken something beautiful, and now he would never solve Antonio's riddle. Why could he never, ever get it right? "Oh God, it's nothing, nothing."
Feliciano knelt beside him and took his arm. Lovino let his brother open his hand, let him take the ring and inspect it. "Te quiero," said Feliciano curiously. "What does that mean?"
A lump rose like a warning in Lovino's throat. "Nothing. Forget it." He snatched the ring from Feliciano's hand, thrust it in his pocket, and tried to speak calmly. "Just forgetyou saw it, and I'll forget I saw it, and we'll all just forget that any of this ever happened."
Feliciano's face was concerned in the lantern light. "Forget that what happened? Lovino? What happened?"
Silly, innocent Feliciano. How could he possibly understand any of this? What the hell did he know of wanting someone so badly that he could never really have? Lovino shook his head and climbed to his feet. "Nothing," he repeated.
"What's the time? Why are you home so late? Where is Antonio? Grandpa said you hurt your ankle, are you all right? Lovino, you look like you are going to fall over."
"Feliciano." Lovino limped shakily to his bed, glad to hear that Feli did not sound overly traumatised by the events of the day. Feli did upset himself so easily… "Go back to sleep."
"Will you at least let me bandage your ankle?"
Lovino fell onto the bed and hid his face in a pillow. He was exhausted, he was mortified, and he felt like sleeping forever. "Argh Feli why can't you ever shut up..."
Lovino growled low in his throat and spoke clearly. "I said, Antonio already did that. Now shut up."
As he heard Feliciano sweep up the shards, Lovino burned with shame, finally unable to stop these infuriating, guilty tears which rose to his eyes. Lovino did not know much Spanish, but this he understood. Te quiero. I want you. All he saw in the darkness was Antonio's foolish, eager, handsome face in the moonlight, his bright, green eyes and wild, dark hair… Once you have the secret tomato words… Why could it not be that easy? Why couldn't it just be that kind and silly and simple?
Lovino did not even bother to undress, desperate to fall into oblivion as fast as he could. Because he knew how serious this was getting. Because this was no longer his secret, and he did not even know if he wanted it to be. Because he could not continue like this much longer. Something had to give.
"What were they asked?" Antonio tapped his fingers nervously against his coffee cup. The pot was almost empty - it was clear this would be yet another sleepless night. "They must have been interrogated. What were they asked?"
The Turk sat leaning back in his chair, unmoving, his face cloaked in shadow from the moonlight filtering through the cantina windows. Apart from the single candle on the table between them, the rest of the room was in darkness. "What do you think, Spaniard?" he answered casually. "Names. They are of greater value than gold, these days."
Antonio reached into his pocket and placed a small pouch of jangling coins onto the table. "A currency you are prepared to trade in?" Antonio did not trust this man. Every time they met, Antonio hoped it would be the last. He knew this was dangerous. He knew this man's only loyalty was to gold, and that every day Antonio was worth more to the enemy. But he also knew he needed information, and no one knew more than the Turk.
The Turk gave the pouch a fleeting, unreadable glance. "Names? I can give you them easily. Schmidt, Schneider, Hoffman, Hesse." He recited the names in a flat, bored tone, then paused, a curious look growing on his shadowed face. "Actually, that last one is interesting. An interrogator, and former prisoner, newly arrived from the Eastern Front. It was he who gave the order for execution."
Now, that was intriguing. "An army prisoner given rank within the Gestapo?"
The Turk just raised an eyebrow, his expression carefully closed. "You'd be surprised how easy this world is for very cruel men. I'd say he bought his way into favour somehow."
"How could he afford it?"
"Aren't you listening? Names are worth more than gold. Still, I don't see why you would pay for them." The Turk glanced pointedly at the pouch on the table. "Your enemy has one name, and it is Germany. No, what do you really want to know?"
Antonio restrained himself from answering that no, Germany was never his enemy. The Turk would not understand, and besides, that was of little importance right now. "I want to know if they answered."
The Turk nodded, his hands clasped steadily in his lap. "Now you're asking the right questions. No, Spaniard, you got damned lucky. Your little resistance friends were caught trying to execute a high ranking SS officer – they were almost dead by the time the interrogators got to them. Not much good for questioning – but perfect for a public execution on a busy market day."
Antonio sat back heavily and took a sip of his rapidly cooling coffee. So the men did not speak. The Germans did not know about the American landings. In the end, however, this was only a small relief. The military were increasingly desperate to destroy any and all resistance. "All right. They were not answered, but – who did the interrogators ask for?"
The Turk smirked and said simply, "Well, I'll say this. If you were smart, you'd leave town."
Antonio snorted softly. He'd never been smart. "They want me."
Well, that much Antonio knew already. He sighed in relief, his heavy chest lightening, and raised his coffee in a sort of toast. Nothing much to be concerned about, after all.
But then the Turk shifted just slightly, and continued. "But… there is an even greater prize than you these days, Spaniard."
Antonio froze, cup halfway to his lips. The light feeling in his chest vanished, replaced with a tight coil of anxiety. "What do you mean?"
"This is a public battle, now - the execution this morning made that quite clear. What the Germans really need is someone these civilians look up to – someone whose death will scare them into compliance. Someone, maybe, who holds this little town's surprisingly successful Resistenza together."
Antonio realised he was still holding his coffee cup in the air, and lowered it shakily. "They want the leader," he breathed, the coil of anxiety turned to cold, sick dread.
The Turk pointed his finger in an affirmative gesture. "You got it. The most valuable name of all. And once they have it, they will bleed him for what he knows, and they will show this town his destruction."
Antonio nearly swore as he ran a hand over his tired eyes. He should have realised it would come to this. He thought of Roma Vargas, hero of the Isonzo; stubborn and proud; for all his faults, the strongest man Antonio had ever known. "They'd be wasting their time. He will never talk."
The Turk just stared for a few moments, the candlelight flickering in his dark eyes, before resting his arms on the table and letting out a heavy breath. When he spoke, it was quieter than usual, and Antonio found himself leaning forward to listen. "Have you ever been north, Spaniard? I mean, really north, where the winters last all year, and the nights last for months."
Antonio was a little thrown, both by the odd change in the Turk's voice and the sudden change of topic. Swift, fleeting images ran wild through his memory, of days sledding through fairytale forests; nights dancing beneath ceilings made of ice; evenings lying in the snow, Gilbert and Francis beside him, watching the sky turn a thousand shades of pink and green and orange... He quickly suppressed them. "Not for many years."
"I was there recently. A little village on the Norwegian coast, close to Trondheim. Their resistance fell last summer." The Turk's lip curled in the tiniest hint of a smirk. "They, also, had a leader who would 'never talk.'"
Antonio did not answer. He slowly sat back, staring at the candle's reflection in the dark window, afraid he knew where this was heading.
"The Gestapo tried, of course. Broke every bone trying, but damn, this Norwegian kid was tough. It seemed there was nothing they could do to make him talk. So, they changed tactics. Torturing him wasn't gonna make him talk. Torturing someone else, however…" The Turk let the words fade into silent explanation.
Antonio swallowed heavily. "Someone else…"
"Someone he cared about. Someone he loved. A Danish pilot, or something like that..." The Turk shrugged. "Spilled his guts in a matter of moments. That's the thing, you see. There's always someone else. Now, you say Roma will never talk. But he has grandsons, doesn't he?"
Suddenly, the room turned red. The breath rushed from Antonio's lungs, the candlelight roared like a fire, the floor fell out from under him… "No…" He gasped the word, his blood turning to rage, his hands gripping the table edge until he felt the wood splinter in his skin… How could he not have realised? How could he be so stupid? If the Gestapo reached Roma, they would reach Lovino. And if they reached Lovino… "No. They will not get to Roma. It is me they want, it's always been me they want, it HAS to be me they want!"
The Turk's eyes narrowed perceptively, and Antonio fought to control his reaction, aware too late that he was shouting. He drew a few breaths through burning lungs and forced his hands to relax. "I am more expendable than Roma," he attempted to explain, though his head was spinning, his blood was racing, his throat was pounding... "I must remain their highest target, I am strong enough, I…"
Antonio slowly trailed off. The realisation broke suddenly, a flash of certain clarity, and he knew immediately what he had to do. He looked up slowly, jaw clenched in determination, barely noticing the Turk's piercing expression. "Hesse, wasn't it? He is the one in charge of arrests?"
The Turk's eyes glinted warningly in the candlelight. "Whatever you are considering, I'd do so carefully. This man is dangerous." He eyed the pouch of gold, still sitting untouched on the table. "And you are far more valuable to me alive."
Antonio ignored him. His heart was beating fire, and all he could see was Lovino scowling, Lovino laughing, Lovino screaming at the hands of the Gestapo… "Where can I find this Hesse tomorrow evening?"
Something in Antonio's tone made the Turk drop his smirk and answer clearly. "Probably at the Cantina Rossa, drinking with the military officers."
"Can you ensure it?"
The Turk regarded him closely for a moment. He looked mildly curious, but did not enquire further. "All right, Spaniard." He reached for the gold on the table, and placed it in his jacket pocket. "He'll be there." He pushed back his chair, but Antonio raised a hand to stop him.
"One more thing. You said Hesse was in a prison unit before his transfer to the Gestapo. Why was he arrested?"
The Turk gave a short, humourless laugh. "The war to the east is brutal. Rifles are not the only weapons used. Rape and torture are two of the more common ones. Our friend Sergeant Hesse was rather fond of both - got caught with his hands bloody and his pants down one too many times."
Antonio's gut churned in disgust. Now he had no doubts about what he had to do.
The Turk stood and headed for the front door. After a few oddly hesitant steps he stopped, but did not turn. When he spoke, it was strangely quiet, softer than Antonio had ever heard it. "I tried to protect someone once. A lifetime ago."
Antonio blinked in surprise. He stared up at the Turk, straight and still amidst a room of empty, shadowed tables, his wide, tall frame strangely small in the filtered moonlight. Antonio knew nothing of this man's past, or of what he spoke. He simply raised his chin warily at these cryptic words. "What makes you think I am protecting someone?"
The Turk turned his head slightly, a tiny, knowing smile on his lips. "There's always someone else."
Before Antonio could think to panic, the Turk strode to the exit. His final words were almost too soft to hear. "Strong towers, Spaniard."
The next morning, it felt like winter had finally arrived. Feliciano had again been eager to head out early, despite the chill, but it was hours later that Lovino finally dragged himself from the warmth of his bed. His ankle was slightly swollen and a little bruised, but this type of pain was easy to handle. It was the memory of the night before that really hurt. Lovino tried not to think of it, instead focusing on buttoning his shirt, hooking his braces into his belt, bending down to pull on his socks… he stopped short at the flash of colour in the corner of his eye. There, under Feliciano's bed… Lovino moved closer, slowly reaching down to retrieve the bright orange wrapper and inspect it curiously. It read one word: Schokolade.
Lovino felt his brow furrow in confusion. A German chocolate wrapper. Feliciano had given him some chocolate on Monday, the day after Antonio arrived, but Lovino had barely thought of it at the time. Now he had to wonder - where had Feliciano possibly acquired German chocolate? Faintly unsettled, Lovino put the wrapper in his pocket, only to immediately forget it when his fingers brushed something else. A surge of warmth filled him as he closed his hand over the ring. Te quiero. Without another thought to the chocolate wrapper, Lovino slipped the ring onto his finger and headed out into the freezing morning, with what looked like a storm brewing on the horizon.
Lovino rushed through the front room of the Cantina Verde, as fast as his ankle allowed, past empty chairs and silent waiters. The meeting would already be taking place in the secret back room. Despite everything, there was still a war, and Lovino was still a resistance member, and he was still late, and…
Lovino came to an abrupt halt.
Antonio sat against the wall by the door, his knees drawn up, his hands clasped between them. He wore the same rumpled shirt and trousers from the previous day; his hair hung unwashed, his face unshaven. He raised his head slowly, looking up at Lovino with eyes red from lack of sleep. Lovino stared back, unsure what to do or say, his breath unsteady and his heart clenching in his chest.
"The Germans are more aware than ever of the influence of our resistance." Grandpa Roma's words echoed through the door. Once, he would have roared them, like a stirring battle speech to a charging army. Now, he spoke them flatly, like he had been doing this too long, and was no longer certain of what he was saying.
"Yesterday, they tried to threaten us. But it will not work, and we will not stop. We will continue to prepare for the American landings. We will continue to undermine enemy operations. We will continue, until this country is our own again."
The words were like a lightning strike through Lovino's head, while Antonio's eyes held his in that unbreakable green hold. No, they would not stop. It seemed they would never stop. Year after year after year… It was this war keeping him from Antonio. It was this bloody interminable, broken battle that drove the light from Antonio's eyes and the smile from his lips. This fear, this hate, this constant, ugly terror of it. Antonio was the most wanted man in Europe, who fought for Italy, and would probably not survive this war.
Roma's voice sounded again, clear and strong through the closed door. "The events of yesterday morning are a reminder that nothing we do is without risk. No mission is simple. I do not need to tell you of the increasing danger. I just need you to remember. Remember why we are doing this."
And Antonio was also the most foolish, stupid, wonderful man in the entire world, who fought for what was right, and believed in touching the stars. But right now, none of that even mattered, because Antonio was hurting, and Lovino did not know how to stop it. Antonio attempted a smile, small and sad and forced. "I'm tired, Lovino."
And then it was simple.
"Come with me." Lovino held out his hand. Antonio took it immediately.
Sitting against the back garden wall, lavender drifting on the air and rosemary blooming before them, Lovino was not even sure how they had ended back here. It just seemed like the only place to go. It always seemed to end here, where the herbs and flowers grew in lines, and only oak leaves and drifting winds entered from the outside world. This little corner of the world, where there was only calm, and stillness, and peace, and everything else felt a thousand miles away.
Antonio rested his head back against the wall and let out a contented sigh. "Yes. This is better. Thank you, Lovino."
Lovino shrugged, a bit embarrassed by Antonio's thanks. It wasn't like he'd done anything, after all. All he knew was that he wanted Antonio to feel better. He wanted to stop everything that exhausted him; destroy everything that hurt him. Lovino wanted Antonio to say those stupid things he always did, and laugh in that way that brightened the darkness, and stay with him forever.
Antonio batted absently at a wildflower growing from beneath the stone wall. Lovino watched those bronzed fingers stroke gently over the flower petals, watched as the weary lines of his face smoothed and a tranquil smile settled on his lips. "I've never had a garden," he mused, oblivious. "I think I'd like one, one day. I would grow tomatoes."
Lovino would never stop marvelling at Antonio's extraordinary ability to remain cheerful despite every impetus to the contrary. Moments ago in the cantina he had looked on the edge of despair. Now he just sat calmly, the cold wind tousling his dark curls, the muted afternoon sunlight brightening his skin. Warmth surged through Lovino's blood despite the freezing air, and he had to remind himself to respond sarcastically. "Are tomatoes all you ever think about?"
"No. I think about lots of things." Antonio hummed thoughtfully and tapped his feet together. "Trains. Renoir. Stars. Schnapps. H.G. Wells... I hope he's well."
Lovino did not know where to start. "Stars, again?"
"Venus, especially." Antonio met Lovino's gaze and grinned. "I like Venus."
Lovino's neck tingled. "That's a..."
"Planet. Yes, of course." Antonio bit back a chuckle and raised a mirthful eyebrow. "And you? Are tomatoes all you ever think about?"
Lovino really had to wonder how Antonio's mind worked sometimes. "Why the hell would I think about tomatoes?"
Antonio leant sideways, his shoulder brushing Lovino's, and whispered, "Because they're delicious!" The touch shot right down Lovino's body until his legs felt weak, but he rolled his eyes, and almost laughed. Then Antonio continued easily, "And because you're wearing your ring."
Oh, shit. Lovino abruptly choked silent and stuck his hand in his jacket. His heart skipped dangerously in his chest and he felt his face burn bright red. How the hell had he forgotten he had the ring on his finger? And he'd been wearing it all this time! How was he supposed to explain this?! He fumbled desperately for an excuse. He had to think of what to say. He had to… "Te quiero…" … really not blurt out the first words that came to mind. He stubbornly ignored Antonio's jovial reaction and stammered, "Your… your stupid tomato code, it doesn't even make sense, it…"
Antonio could never suppress his laughter for long. "It means…"
"I know what it means, idiota, what I mean is that you can't give me a bloody tomato made of glass and tell me there's a code and a riddle because it's ridiculous, isn't it, it's just…" Lovino's mind raced to catch up with his mouth. "… it's stupid," he finished lamely. He briefly covered his burning face with his hands and wished fervently, not for the first time, for a giant black hole to open up beneath him.
Antonio sounded quite pleased with himself, the bastard. "I rather liked it."
Lovino lifted his hands to his head and attempted a disdainful glare. "Te quiero?" he repeated, as scornfully as he could manage.
Antonio's eyes lit up. "Yo también te quiero!" he replied gleefully, grinning like a madman.
Lovino shook his head and dropped his hands to his lap. Despite his embarrassment, he still had to make an effort not to smile. How did Antonio always make that so difficult? "Oh, don't try to be clever."
Antonio gasped dramatically. "Never, Lovino! You are the clever one. After all, you cracked the tomato code!"
"I smashed it." Lovino lifted his chin, attempting to say it triumphantly. But he immediately felt childish and guilty, and it only sounded petty.
Antonio, however, simply laughed. "Of course you did."
Lovino paused, unsure he'd heard that correctly. He stared for a confused moment before asking flatly, "What?"
Antonio hummed and shrugged, his green eyes sparkling. "Actually, I'm surprised you did not break it the second I gave it to you."
Lovino narrowed his eyes, annoyed and suspicious. "Okay, what?"
Antonio still seemed nothing but amused by the entire situation. He very gently nudged Lovino's shoulder. "Oh, Lovino. How could you not break it? After all, you hate secrets so much. And my goodness, for someone with such willpower, you can be so impatient."
There was too much there to try and decipher. Lovino didn't know if he was flattered or furious. He knew two things for sure, however. One - that stupid smile sent his heart stumbling and his head spinning. Two - "You're a bastard."
Antonio giggled defiantly. "The tomato was never important, Lovino. I only wanted you to know…" Antonio leant forward intently, the smile fading from his lips and growing in his eyes.
Lovino had seen that look before. He raised a warning hand, his heart leaping to hammer in his throat. "You're going to be dramatic now, aren't you?"
Antonio paused, his eyes darting guiltily. "No. Possibly. Well okay, yes, but only briefly."
"Oh, for God's…" Lovino sucked in a sharp breath and turned rigid when Antonio placed a hand lightly on his chest. He really hoped Antonio could not feel his heartbeat…
Then Antonio reached for Lovino's hand and lowered it between them. "Sometimes, Lovino, things get broken. But what is inside…" Lovino's breath caught in his lungs as Antonio's green eyes blazed into his own, as his warm touch shivered across Lovino's skin, brushing so gently over his fingers, tracing ever-so-softly over the silver ring, "…is what matters. Because that is what will last forever… and it will never break."
Oh, it was completely dramatic; yet Lovino could not tear his gaze away, and his blood raced hot in his veins, and he could not control the rapid rising of his chest, and he knew Antonio was saying more than it seemed, but all Lovino could manage to say was, "I'm sorry I smashed your tomato."
For a long moment, neither moved. Antonio's eyebrow twitched. Then suddenly, without warning, he burst into laughter. Lovino's entire body lightened, like a massive surge of relief, and he shook his head as Antonio dissolved into giggles. God, he was ridiculous… but that silliness was like air when Lovino was drowning, and his laughter was like light chasing away the darkness. As he laughed, Antonio's too-often careworn face was bright and untroubled, and for the first time, Lovino wondered - maybe it was not just Antonio who filled the emptiness inside Lovino. Maybe, just sometimes, Lovino did the same for him.
And so Lovino let himself smile, hand still touching Antonio's, let the cold breeze cool his heated cheeks as the last traces of laughter drifted away on the wind. The silence fell naturally, the air between them warm and content and completely right. This was the only time Lovino ever felt so right - when it was just him, and Antonio, together, talking of such silly things. Finally Antonio let out a long breath and leant back against the wall. "Oh, but I am tired, Lovino."
"Then go to sleep."
And how strange, that it really was that simple. So simple to let his guard down, to say such things, to let Antonio slowly sink sideways until his head rested on Lovino's thighs. Lovino's veins thrummed, awkward and unsure at what was probably the greatest contentment in his life. Yesterday he'd thought he would die in this man's arms. Today, he wanted nothing more than to live in them.
A ray of sunlight glinted in Antonio's hair, turning the dark brown to red. Lovino stared for a few moments, familiar hesitation staying his hand, until it was again so simple to just reach out and touch the copper curls. The curly locks threaded so easily between his fingers - not nearly so dirty as he thought, just soft and warm.
The afternoon sky was already growing dark with threatening clouds, but with Antonio resting against him, Lovino never wanted to move. And as the heavy stillness of the day settled around them, Lovino barely noticed when he started humming; barely noticed when, as always, the indistinct humming turned to words. The song that always came to mind when he felt this way, like his heart filled his body and his body was tied to this man beside him.
Hold me my darling and say that you'll always be mine.
"This joy is something new, my arms enfolding you,
Never knew this thrill before.
Who ever thought I'd be holding you close to me,
Whispering it's you I adore.
"Dearest one, if you should leave me…"
Lovino broke off at those last words, slamming a hand to his mouth, unable to stop a sudden, strangled gasp.
Antonio opened his eyes and startled slightly, concerned, but Lovino just shook his head silently. He could not explain. These last few days, Lovino's fear of losing Antonio had never been so real. The days grew darker; the hours more dangerous. And yet, he'd never allowed himself closer to this daft, good, frustrating, wonderful man who he simply could not help loving despite how hard he tried.
When Antonio finally spoke, it was soft, and wistful, and somehow understanding. "I would like it if you sang more often, Lovino."
Lovino blinked his eyes hurriedly. God, how stupid of him… "I'll only sing for you." How utterly stupid of him…
"Oh." Antonio sighed happily. "I think I like that even better."
Uncomfortable with this clawing emotion in his throat, Lovino attempted awkwardly to change the subject. "What will you do? When the war is over?"
Even as he blinked sleepily, Antonio looked a little overwhelmed. Lovino wondered how much thought Antonio had ever given to the end of the war – maybe he never really expected it to end. "When the war is over…"
"Will you stay?" Lovino winced as he asked it, then held his breath waiting for an answer.
"Would you like me to?" Antonio's voice was soft, drowsy, yet his shoulders tensed as though in expectation.
Lovino rested his hand hesitantly in Antonio's soft curls, and allowed himself to imagine – just for a moment – Antonio walking through the front door, rested and happy; strolling along the road with no fear of German patrols; sitting here in the garden as the wildflowers bloomed, no sunset when Antonio would have to leave… Forever.
Before he could think and stop himself, Lovino spoke the closest thing to a confession he'd ever come. "Yes. I'd like you to stay."
Antonio's lips curled in a smile, his chest rising and falling in a long, contented breath. "Very well. Then I'll stay. And what will you do?"
"After the war."
Lovino had no way to answer that. He hadn't thought of it often, and when he did, he could never think of an answer that satisfied him. "I don't know. Work in the field with Grandpa, I suppose. The barley will always need harvesting…"
"You are too clever to be a farmer, Lovino." Before Lovino could answer angrily, Antonio gave a soft breath of laughter. "You think too much. You feel too much. You need some way to let that out."
All anger vanished, and Lovino's cheeks burned with something other than rage. "Stop speaking like you know me."
Antonio seemed amused by that, even as his brilliant green eyes again drifted closed. "But I do know you. There are so many things in this world that everyone understands but me. You are the only one, Lovino, that I understand, when no one else does."
By now, Antonio almost seemed to be talking in his sleep. Lovino's heart swelled in his chest; rose as a lump in his throat. He ran a hand through Antonio's thick, messy hair, and with a heartbreaking shiver of realisation, he knew that this was the best moment of his life. "Okay," he sighed, unsure if he wanted to laugh or cry or just scream with frustration. "Shut up. Go to sleep."
Lovino must have dozed off also, this perfect afternoon floating by, because the next thing he heard was the back kitchen door opening. He startled slightly, then looked up to see Grandpa Roma stepping into the garden. Lovino stared back at him, a cold shudder running down his spine. But what did he have to be ashamed of? He steeled himself, and did not take his hand from Antonio's hair. "He is sleeping."
Roma looked down, straight and tall, no hint of emotion but the slight twitch of his eyebrow. "A spy should wake easier than that."
Lovino fought the instinct to explain himself, to deny everything, to run. He did not move. "I suppose he feels safe here." For a long moment, their eyes remained locked. Lovino refused to look away. Finally he said, "He is exhausted, Grandpa. You know how hard he works. For us… for Italy."
"For you." Roma breathed out and lowered his eyes, resignation in his face and his stance. "It was always for you." He turned to leave, his drooping shoulders the only sign of his fatigue. "It is cold out here. When he wakes, come inside. I will start the fire."
Lovino watched Roma go, his throat pounding uncertainly. Grandpa Roma hadn't yelled, hadn't thrown Antonio out. Lovino did not know what to think. A glance at the darkening sky told him it was growing late. And inexplicably, even with Roma walking away and Antonio resting warm on his lap, Lovino's thoughts drew to one place: the German chocolate wrapper still in his pocket. A strange sense of dread settled over this cold, peaceful afternoon. Where was Feliciano?
To be continued…